What Makes A Leader: What the Tao Can Teach You About Leadership

jesselmquist Human Resources, Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Operations Leave a Comment

Life Time Fitness SVP of HR has spent the last four years extracting 81 leadership leadership lessons from an ancient Chinese text. Here’s one of his favorites.

By Jess Elmquist

Editor’s Note: Leadership means different things to different people. Forefront set out to learn what our network thinks by asking the simple open-ended question, “What makes a leader?” Here is one response from the series, first published on the Forefront magazine blog.

Over the last four years, I have develoCY7A6363 (1)ped a leadership practice called Power 81. This practice is based on 81 verses, adapted from the Tao Te Ching, that when applied to leadership can assist you to tap into an amazing power. Not a power of position, like that of a politician, influential figure or executive. Rather, power like the sun, ubiquitous across the planet, free for anyone to access.

Imagine having this intrinsic power as a leader, making available indelible energy to grow people, teams and companies while also recharging yourself to endure in your work. This is the secret to great success, mastering your leadership work from the inside so that the job outside can be executed with care, creating a path of inclusion and leaving a trail of life behind it. It becomes not just about getting the job done at all costs, but getting the job done with sustainable excellence, making the universe larger, enriching people’s lives and creating a better world.

Servant Leadership

Here’s an example: Power Verse 17 says the leader’s way is to work without self-interest, to leave no trace; when the work is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

This verse speaks about servant leadership in its highest form. The wise leader guides and builds his or her team in a way that shows no trace of their effort, and empowers the team to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. To be a servant is the core of leadership power.

Think about the energy behind life itself. Imagine a good farmer sowing his seed in the springtime: the fresh smell of newly tilled soil, the hope for a good season of growth. Summer comes with rain, sun and warmth while the farmer works the field, pulling weeds, protecting young sprouts and hoping for the good growing season to last. The sprouts turn into mature plants as the season turns cool, and the harvest begins. The farmer’s toil accelerates, and the barn starts to fill from the bounty of the field.

In the end, after all is complete, the field is put to bed for the winter. The first moisture for the next season falls as snow resting on the stocks left in the field, renewing the soil for another spring. The farmer and his family rest feeling a sense of well earned contentment, thinking, “Look what we did ourselves.” All the while, the energy of life—the sun, rain and soil—just does what it does, creating the context for the farmer’s work, the supreme good, without trying and asking for no credit.

The wise leader is the same, offering the energy behind the work, while the team feels the accomplishment.

“Even after all this time

The sun never says to the earth

‘You owe me.’

Look what happens with a love like that

It lights the whole sky.”  – Hafiz

Refocusing & Powering

Focus thought: A wise leader works without self-interest, leaves no trace; when the work is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

This Power 81 example illustrates that a successful leader blends into the background while also accomplishing monumental tasks. For most leaders, this skill does not come naturally. Often ego steps in and demands external forces, such as controlling rather than delegating, demanding rather than inspiring and exposing rather than uplifting. The inner work requires a leader to let go of ego, realizing that the greater path exists in serving the greater good of all.

This humility and support from a wise leader preserves employees and cultures, sustains integrity and fosters durable accomplishments. In the end, it is not about becoming perfect, but healthy; not in control, but self-regulation; not master of all, but servant of many. A wise leader in action, powering their world.

Jess Elmquist is Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Life Time Fitness. Elmquist was featured in Issue No. 9 of Forefront magazine.

Comments, thoughts, feedback?